By JD Lagrange – The hockey world went through a range of emotions since the Montreal Canadiens surprised everyone when naming Martin St-Louis as the team’s new head coach back in February. Known as a good hockey mind, St-Louis didn’t have any experience coaching at the pro level, so shock was the first reaction of many. Then, it turned into humour when he started using drills utilized in minor hockey, playing on smaller areas on the ice. It was followed by humility, when the Canadiens started playing much better.
And when he turned some players’ season around, the hockey world took notice and the qualificative “impressed” was predominant. Cole Caufield was by far the NHL’s best rookie since St-Louis took over. Jeff Petry, who was brutal in the first half, returned to form while Christian Dvorak, who had failed to replace departing Phillip Danault, was the third most productive forward on the Habs under the new coach.
St-Louis wants his players to take a different approach. He wants them to use their instincts more, to be creative with the puck and give each other options. He has already started working on changing the game of both Josh Anderson and Brendan Gallagher, two guys who don’t know how to go half-speed, two of the team’s hardest workers. He wants them to work “smarter”.
“I was never really taught that or even thought about that,” said Anderson. “I’ve really just been a straight line guy and, as soon as Marty came in, it was about attention to details, the little things. Change your speed, maybe not go so fast and think the game a bit more in open ice. This is the NHL and you don’t always have to be beside a guy supporting the puck,” he added. “You can try to find open ice and you don’t always have to be flying. There’s a been a lot of back-and-forth video with Marty and it’s helpful.”
Thankfully, both players are born leaders and will do what it takes to help the team. In this case, St-Louis believes that while they may seem to struggle with it at times, both players will become better hockey players and feels like it could even extend their career.
“If you just go, go, go,” said St. Louis, “you’re going to miss opportunities. There are always ways to improve if you’re 27 or you’re 30. I think it’s important if you’re going to play in this league for a long time to keep evolving as a player. You still need to play to your strengths but there’s parts where players have holes in their game. As a coach, as an organization, you have to help players work on those holes and the more they evolve, the more productive they’ll be and they’ll probably have a better career because of it.”
“I think this is a good opportunity to implement the concept, the culture I’m trying to bring, collectively, individually. Not everyone has the same progression and I’m not coaching everyone the same. I understand when I talk to some of the players, it might make them think a little bit and, when you think, there may be a little more hesitation in the game. But once it becomes clear through repetition, through video, through the conversation, they’re in a better place.”
St-Louis has new projects to work with. Jonathan Drouin missed a lot of time due to a second wrist injury and he seems ready to come back at training camp. The former third overall pick has been under a lot of heat since being acquired by the Canadiens. He has struggled to be healthy and has yet to turn into the player everyone saw in him.
Drouin is in the final year of a contract paying him $5.5 million. The 27 year-old winger has reached the 50-points plateau only twice in his career. Being a contract year should be added motivation, but his offensive creativity could fit in very well with St-Louis’ approach. If he can remain healthy, there should be room for a lot of optimism that he can have a very good season. Later in the season, the question will be about trading him or re-signing him. That decision is not made yet and will depend heavily on the season he’s having, and the direction the team is taking at the time.
Martin St-Louis will have another important project with high offensive potential. Kent Hughes completed a trade at the Draft table, which saw the Canadiens acquire 21 year-old Kirby Dach from the Chicago Blackhawks. Also a former third overall pick, Dach has gone through some injuries issues, including a wrist injury, much like Drouin.
The giant format center oozes skills but has yet to put it all together and St-Louis could very well be the guy to help him find his confidence and at the same time, his game.
Both Drouin and Dach are creative, offensive players. Getting more freedom to express that talent on the ice could help them get to where everyone saw them going on their draft year. St-Louis could be the catalyst in both cases to make that happen. The Canadiens’ coach is no miracle worker, but if he can repeat with those two players what he’s done for Caufield, Petry and Dvorak (amongst others), players will take note and more skilled players will, like Pierre-Luc Dubois, want to join his team.
And St-Louis won’t be alone, as he can rely on the help of Director of Hockey Development Adam Nicholas, Rob Ramage (Director of Player Development), Francis Bouillon (Coach, Player Development) and newly appointed Player Development Consultant Marie-Philip Poulin.
Focussing on skills’ development is a lot easier… with skilled players. And the Canadiens have a few good ones whose potential has yet to be fully reached. That also includes this year’s Draft first overall pick, Juraj Slafkovsky.
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